Don’t know what makes the adventurers come to Sandy Eggo in search of trunk rides in the mighty Varga Kachina. Don’t know how someone who’s never flown feels the need to try something Really Different behind someone they don’t know at all. I guess I’m just glad that they do. Not for the $25 per hour that I get flying them around, really. And not only for the quiet joy it brings me to make total strangers appreciate, for however short a time, the gift of flight. Not even for the extra 0.9 in my log book. It’s a little bit of all those things of course. But mostly I fly because I have to.
And it’s nice when someone else pays.
Three flights today down at the local patch. The first were a father and son team from the Great White Up taking turns on half hour “learn to flies”, which are basically a few turns to get the swing of it, then a trip down south via the shoreline transition route through San Diego Lindbergh’s Class B airspace from Crystal Pier in Pacific Beach to the Ocean Beach pier. From OB pier we tune up North Island Tower for the trip through San Diego Bay – don’t overfly the warships – tagging up on the east end of the Coronado Bay Bridge before heading back north and crossing over Lindbergh over their Delta Taxiway at 1000 feet or above. Jet liners landing beneath us every few minutes or so.
Dad took his spin at the wheel before deciding that, all things considered? He’d rather leave the flying to me. Which, no problem, that’s what I’m here for.
The second set were a pair of young men up from Mexico, one of them hailing from the capital city, t’other being a Brazilian. My man was all smiles and gollies throughout, cabron. The third set were a pair of Frenchmen living in Los Angeles down for a dog fight, the one an antique and classic car dealer – it’s my passion! – and his friend a restaurateur. The antique car dealer was my man, and he was all about “his passions.” Whether it was his cars, or whether it was going to be flying, or whether it was leaving go of the flight controls when it was my turn to fly. Which I had to remonstrate with him for on several occasions. For I do not mind a guest pilot gently following me on the stick when I’m demonstrating some maneuver. But I do take issue with one that sees it fit to countermand my inputs. Especially in a head-on merge, or when flying in close formation.
“My airplane,” I’d say. Followed by, “Show me your hands.” Not infrequently followed in turn by, “Both of them.”
Passion is all well and good, but the better part of flying is analytical. Which, when you come to think of it, is a kind of passion of its own.
On Friday I got the chance to rent that beat up old Citabria that I’ve been making friends with over at Gillespie. The airplane has been in an extended annual inspection, and I hadn’t flown it – or any other tailwheel aircraft – since early June. Two and a half months is a long time to go between conventional landings, and I toyed with the idea of hiring an instructor. But the winds were mostly calm, and I believed that I’d mostly figured that particular airplane out.
Which was mostly true. I forgot to haul aft on the stick while starting the engine, which is considered points on for style among the conventional gear set. It being remotely possible that an engine surge can kick the tail up in the sky – and the prop down to the tarmac – if you haven’t got the former properly pinned to the ground. I get that right about half the time, and when I forget it’s because with one hand on the starter button on the dashboard and the other on the mixture control, ready to go full rich when the engine catches, I often find myself one hand short of the absolute need. The guilt that comes from not having three hands on start reminds me to properly position the controls for taxiing on downwind and crosswind. “Climb into the wind, dive away from it.”
On the runway, power up and stick forward. The tail comes up at maybe 30-35 knots, and it’s only a 150HP engine so the nose only kicks to the left from gyroscopic precession just a little, if only to make sure you’re paying attention. At sixty knots it’s time to tease her into the air, and with just me on board she’s only too happy to comply. Eighty knots is best climb, and it seems like we’re on an elevator as the ground falls away. Runway 19 falls behind me, and with it the opportunity to bail out crosswind if the engine quits. I’ve still got the parallel runway going the other direction, but now it’s time to turn downwind, leading the aileron input with just a little rudder. She seems to appreciate just a little rudder.
Out by El Capitan I put her through an aileron roll, just because I can. In a military jet you pick the nose up maybe ten degrees, and the maneuver is done with roll inputs only, the nose ending right back on the horizon again when you’re done. The Citabria seems to prefer about twenty degrees nose high, and it takes full aileron and rudder in the direction you want to go, the nose burying itself 20 degrees nose low. Back comes the throttle to prevent the fixed pitch prop from overspeeding on the recovery.
Three perfectly acceptable stall landings at Ramona, followed by some of the best wheel landings I’ve done to date. There was a good article in AOPA about landing technique that touched specifically on wheel landings, something I’ve always struggled just a little with. Never knowing if it was going to be perfect, acceptable or an abortion. Lacking that necessary confidence that, should a wheel landing be necessary, I had what it took to peg it. There are many different teaching techniques.
This one worked for me:
My own breakthrough at tailwheel landings came in a Cessna 170, a close civilian cousin to the Bird Dog, on a summer day in Memphis. I had been going around and around the pattern at my local airport trying—and failing—to “pin” the mains to the ground on wheel-landing attempts. Things would go just fine until I was one or two feet off the surface. Then I’d get ready to decisively add forward pressure to pin the mains on. But as soon as I tried, I’d bounce back into the air.
The more I pushed, the bigger the bounces got. Eventually, I’d admit defeat, add power, and go around. Three-point landings were no problem.
I finally put the airplane away after leaving an inordinate amount of rubber on the pavement. Frustrated, sweaty, and miffed by my inability to gracefully land the slow-moving Cessna, I stubbornly resolved to keep trying. But I needed a Coke first and went inside the airport’s FBO to retrieve one.
The old guy had been watching, and he followed me to the vending machine. There, he asked if I wanted him to share the secret of wheel landings. Of course!
He stood close and softly said: “Don’t land.”
I stared back blankly.
“I mean it,” he said. “Don’t land. Try to fly one foot off the ground the entire length of the runway. Intellectually, we both know you won’t be carrying enough power to maintain level flight that long. But just project your mind down the runway—all the way down the runway—and tell yourself you’re going to keep on flying. Be surprised when those main wheels kiss the ground.”
But what about the forward stick? Don’t I need to be ready to push at just the right instant? If I wait a fraction of a second too long, won’t I miss my chance? The old man shook his head.
“As long as you’re working the stick aft when the wheels touch, your descent rate will be next to nothing, and the mains will just roll on,” he said. “You’ll have all day to add forward stick. But if you anticipate the landing, then you’re relaxing the back-pressure too soon, and that’ll cause a bounce every time. As you’ve already seen, once the bouncing starts, it just gets worse.”
The old man’s advice cracked the code, and I started consistently making smooth wheel landings soon after. As long as I thought about flying, the landings went fine. The second I thought about landing, the mains touched too hard, the tail sank, the angle of attack increased, and I was airborne again.
I never met the old codger, but his advice worked perfectly for me. Fly formation off the runway, ease the power back and once the mains kiss the tarmac, take your time going forward on the stick. Reset back aft again once the tail starts to stall. A big part of this business is passing it all along.
In flying, you never really want to say that you’ve got something licked, because it tempts fate. You never really want to believe it, even if you don’t say a word, because complacency breeds contempt, contempt antagonizes fate, and the gods of aviation will be appeased.
Headed back to Gillespie for an uneventful landing, taxi clear, put her to bed. There’s an older gentleman who flies a Piper Cherokee on Friday afternoons, about the same time I do. We’ve chatted half a dozen times, and I finally introduced myself.
“Haven’t seen you in a while,” he said.
“Well, the plane’s been in annual.”
“She’s looking good he said,” clearly intending it as a kind of compliment. His own machine showing a fair amount of TLC.
“It’s not my plane,” I answered, looking at the knocked about Citabria. “Just a rental. I’ve got daughters.”
Which might have seemed a non sequitur to the uninitiated.
He nodded sagely.
All of this, I realize, reading over it: It’s all a long walk to a small house. I can’t really explain the feeling of taking flight. Of performing an aileron roll that recovers right on the entry heading. Of pegging a wheel landing. The feeling of being alone with your thoughts for extended moments and just. Living in each and every one of them. I can’t paint that canvas in the way that a stranger passing by can stop, look and suddenly see. See what he hadn’t seen before.
I just know that there’s something inside me that needs it. And that part of this business is passing it all along.